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Review: ‘West Side Story’ at The Little Theatre of Alexandria

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Poverty, street violence, guns, drugs, working-class whites blaming Hispanic immigrants for their financial woes, mistrust of the police—is this an article in last week’s newspaper? It certainly could be, but it also proves the timelessness of the groundbreaking 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. Inspired by the Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet, this classic tale of star-crossed young lovers features music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. With Director Susan Devine, Choreographer Stefan Sittig, and Music Director Francine Krasowska at the helm, The Little Theatre of Alexandria brings this theatrical masterpiece to today’s audiences in brilliant style.

Ari Halvorsen (Baby John), Sean Cator (Snowboy), Derek Marsh (Action), Chris Galindo (Bernardo), Patrick Kearney (Big Deal), Dwayne Allen (A-Rab), and Jeffrey Hollands (Diesel). Photo by Matt Liptak.

Ari Halvorsen (Baby John), Sean Cator (Snowboy), Derek Marsh (Action), Joe Mayes (Riff), Patrick Kearney (Big Deal), Dwayne Allen (A-Rab), and Jeffrey Hollands (Diesel). Photo by Matt Liptak.

As its title suggests, the story takes place in New York City’s West Side during the late 1950s. Craving a sense of belonging, some of the teenagers from the blue-collar neighborhood have formed a gang known as the Jets, led by Riff (Joe Mayes). Their principal rival is the Sharks, led by Bernardo (Chris Galindo) and made up of Puerto Rican immigrants.

Ethnic tensions are running high with no resolution in sight, when Riff decides to have a “war council” to arrange a street fight with the Sharks.  He seeks help from his best friend Tony (Ben Peter) who is like a brother to him. Although Tony has outgrown the Jets and is now working in a candy store and dreaming of a brighter future, he finally agrees to Riff’s request.

The war council is to take place during a dance mixer at the local gymnasium.  While there, Tony meets Maria (Lexie McEntire) who is Bernardo’s younger sister. They fall in love at first sight, and the tensions between their respective families and friends are exacerbated and tragedy ensues. Tony and Maria try to keep their romance alive by shutting out the rest of the world, but circumstances conspire against them.

Ben Peter (Tony). Photo by Matt Liptak.

Ben Peter (Tony). Photo by Matt Liptak.

Handsome tenor Ben Peter is nothing short of breathtaking in the role of Tony. In the optimistic anthem “Something’s Coming,” Peter’s range and vocal dynamics are superb, as he starts out quietly, smoothly crescendos to an exciting climax, and then returns to barely a whisper. With sex appeal oozing from every pore, his amazing talent is displayed once again as he croons “Maria,” a haunting homage to his new love.

Transcendent soprano Lexie McEntire is stunning as she portrays the innocent and naïve Maria who feels she must follow her heart, no matter what the consequences might be. McEntire soars as she sings the incandescent “I Have a Love” (with Tahara Robinson [Anita], and demonstrates a lighter side with the humorous “I Feel Pretty.”

When Tony and Maria combine on the triumphant duet “Tonight”—complete with a balcony scene—it is pure magic. Later, in a fantasy sequence, the couple takes imaginary vows and sings the prayerful and romantic ballad “One Hand; One Heart,” and it is a deeply emotional moment.

As Bernardo’s fiancée Anita, Tahara Robinson shines as she sings “A Boy Like That” to scold Maria for getting involved with someone outside her own ethnic group. Robinson owns the stage as she leads the other Shark Girls in the spectacular production number “America.” The song lyrics are clever and dripping with sarcasm, and the dance moves are dazzling.  And, thanks to Director Susan Devine and Choreographer Stefan Sittig, that is just one of several splendid production numbers that the ultra-talented ensemble members perform in this show.

In “Prologue,” the Shark and Jet Boys get to strut their stuff. The jazz number opens with cool woodwinds and the rhythm is provided by finger snapping. The precision work is fabulous and the acrobatic dancing is truly impressive. Later, the novelty song “Gee, Officer Krupke “ is performed with comic genius, as the Jets imitate the police officer, a judge, a psychiatrist, and a social worker.

A major highlight of the show is a beautiful ballet to the dreamy and romantic ballad “Somewhere” which gives Tony and Maria hope for the future. It starts with a single ballerina, who is then joined by the other female dancers and eventually by the male dancers. The women are attired in gauzy tunics, some in white and others in various pastels, and the men are in tight-fitting pajamas, using the same color palette. Costume Designers Grant Kevin Lane, Jean Schlichting, and Kit Sibley deserve kudos for this and for all the colorful and appropriate costumes throughout the show.

Dan Remmers’ set design paints a grim portrait of the run-down neighborhood, with metal ladders and scaffolding and a fire escape for Maria’s balcony, but also includes splashes of bright colors where appropriate, such as at the dance mixer. With the help of the cast members, scene changes are seamless perfection.

Franklin Coleman’s lighting design is invaluable in the effective use of a relatively small stage. And, Music Director Francine Krasowska skillfully leads a talented 19-piece orchestra through a challenging score of jazz, Latin rhythms, and ballads.

The cast of 'West Side Story.' Photo by Matt Liptak.

The cast of ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Matt Liptak.

While the theme of West Side Story is dark and sad, this timeless musical is thoughtful, provocative, thoroughly entertaining, and teaches lessons our country needs today. The choreography alone would make it worth seeing, but add to that the spectacular performances, the beautiful songs, the compelling story, and the bits of comedy interspersed throughout, and you will agree that The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production of West Side Story is not to be missed!

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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West Side Story  plays through August 13, 2016 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria – 600 Wolfe Street, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call (703) 683-0496, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1554.gif

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